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Acts 7:2a, 51-60 Receive My Spirit

Acts 7:2a, 51-60

Receive My Spirit

Easter 5A

May 18, 2014


We all like to be a part of a winning team. Up to this point in the book of Acts, the church was the winning team. Yes, there had been arrests and there had been threats. However, the believers were bold, public preaching was well received, and the harvest was bountiful. If you remember from a few weeks ago, we heard in Acts 2 how 3000 people believed and were baptized when they heard the Peter’s Pentecost Sermon.  Then, those new believers had everything in common, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayer.  So far, the church was making great strides.

The nature of “winning” for the church changes with the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Stephen is mentioned in Acts chapters 6-7 as one of the seven deacons appointed by the Church to provide for the needs of the poor in the Christian community in Jerusalem.  Because of his powerful witness to the Gospel, Stephen was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin, where he boldly confessed Christ.  Infuriated, the Sanhedrin took him outside of the city and stoned him to death.  Stephen was the Church’s first martyr as he died for the faith.  He is remembered for commending himself to Christ in death when he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and for forgiving those murdering him with the words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).

The text gives us two words that form Stephen’s response—grace and power. Notice the event begins with, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

We are told that Stephen had great power. Yet in this tragic event, he does not seem to be very powerful. There are no great signs and wonders to persuade anyone. There are no thunderbolts from heaven to terrify the enemy. In fact, he is taken outside the city like trash and put down like a sick animal. The picture hardly fits the world’s standard of power. Yet there is no greater power than confidence in God’s word to work through our weaknesses. While miracles would continue, increasingly power among the believers would be understood as a bold witness of Christ in the face of persecution.

Grace is the second word that formed Stephen’s response to persecution. Notice two things about Stephen’s example of grace. First, he had no trouble calling the people out for their sins. He pointed out how their ancestors had rejected God’s prophets. He calls them out for trusting in Solomon’s temple, rather than the God who had made his dwelling among his people. He pulls no punches calling them “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised.” This would hardly seem to be the words of a “grace-filled” servant of the word. Yet we are reminded in God’s word that we have been called to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Grace spoken with his dying breath gained greater significance because he laid the foundation of sin with the law. Stephen called them out for their sin and then released them of their guilt with his final words of intercession.

Finally, notice God’s grace in persecution. Jesus foretold of his death with these words from John’s gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Stephen scattered the seeds of God’s word even as the people spilled his blood. A young man stood nearby as a witness, Saul. God would transform Saul the persecutor to Paul the apostle. Through Paul’s preaching, the Gospel would go forth to the Gentiles.

The church’s response to persecution mirrors Stephen’s response.  This text challenges us to understand our strength in the face of persecution.  None of us here like to be persecuted, ridiculed, disliked because of anything, much less our faith in Christ.  How would you hold up to this kind of persecution?

So where do we go for strength in such things? Do you just dig down deep to find the courage and strength to stand against such things?  Our strength is in the power of God’s Word. We make use of that strength when we are bold to witness to Christ. Have faith that because Christ has died, because Christ has been raised, because Christ now reigns, your life, and your death, are secure with Him.  We pray in Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayer, “For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul and all things…” This is what we are praying each morning and evening in these prayers.

We ought to be humbled by Stephen’s boldness. Think about the times you have been silent in your witness to Christ. Certainly, there were times when your witness was not needed. However, there have been times when you were simply afraid, afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of offending others, afraid of getting into a fight, afraid of being on the “losing” side of things.  Well, I hate to tell you, to the world you are already are.

Such is the way with God’s reigning in Christ and His work of redemption.  To the world, Jesus lost with His death on the cross.  In the losing of His life, He gains eternal life for you, He forgives your sins.  Winning is not found in the glamour and prestige of the world, but in the cross of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

This text challenges us to let God’s grace define our witness; grace that speaks the truth in love, grace that calls a thing what it is, and grace that sows the seeds of forgiveness. In the martyrdom of Stephen, we are reminded that God’s word is always active and effective and the winning team. We may not see positive effects of the gospel seeds we sow, but the promise is there. By the power of the Holy Spirit, when the time is right, that seed will sprout into faith.

Romans 4:1–8, 13–17 -- Sola Fide

As a child, one of my favorite Disney movies, and a favorite story in general, was Peter Pan.  Who wouldn’t want to be boy forever, with little worries or cares?  Who could fly and play all day long?  I remember watching a play of Peter Pan on Television when I was young, and there was this part that they often do in the live performance.  There is a scene where Tinkerbell has died, and she is brought back to life just because the audience believes.  The audience’s applause is encouraged, and grows, until it finally gives power to Tinkerbelle rise up again.

While this is one of the most heartwarming scenes in Peter Pan, it does highlight somewhat of a problem. We often hear people say, “You just gotta have faith,” as though faith has some sort of power within itself.  If you just believe enough, if your faith is great enough, you can do wonderful things. Maybe you’ve even heard a sermon or two this where you leave wondering what you can do to increase your faith this week.

The problem with this, is that the Bible doesn’t speak of faith as something you do.   Abraham’s faith is not a ‘Tinkerbelle faith.’  It is not a generic belief, and certainly not one that is dependent upon how hard Abraham himself tried.  In fact, St. Paul makes the argument that Abraham’s works did not do anything, could not do anything, and were nothing to boast about before God.

One thing that we often tend to forget about Abraham is that he began his life as an idol worshipper. Joshua reviewed Abraham’s origins after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. [Joshua 24:1–3] “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many.” 

Our Old Testament reading informs us that it was God who called Abraham out of idolatry.  Abraham did not act righteously; God declared him righteous because of his faith.  Abraham did not decide to call God.  Abraham simply believed in the Lord who had called Him, and it was counted to him as righteousness.  Paul informs us that the righteousness that Abraham had was a gift from God and not something that Abraham earned. 

Nicodemus in our Gospel reading wasn’t all that different either.  As a leader in Israel, Nicodemus could trace his genealogy back to Abraham.  It actually is pretty special to be a biological descendant of Abraham.  It would be the same as a U.S. citizen being able to trace his genealogy back to George Washington.  It’s interesting.  It’s special.  But, when it comes to salvation, it means zilch … zero … nada … nothing. 

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God comes to those who are born again or born from above.  Just as none of the energy needed for childbirth comes from the baby, so also nothing about becoming a Christian comes from the Christian.  It all comes from outside of us.  It all comes from God.  We do not have a say about the Kingdom of God.  In the case of Abraham, Nicodemus, and us, it is the Kingdom of God that comes to us.  Jesus did not teach us to pray, “Let us make our way into Thy Kingdom.” Instead He taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” We do not go to the Kingdom of God.  It is God who brings His Kingdom to us.  He brings it with His Word. He brings it in the water with the washing of rebirth. He brings it with His body and blood in the Sacrament. Without these, there is only ungodliness.

This was the problem with the Pharisees and others who scorned Jesus – their refusal to acknowledge their own ungodliness.  Don’t get me wrong, they had faith. They had faith in themselves. They had faith in their works. They had faith that if they clapped hard and long enough, they could make and keep themselves alive.  The problem is, dead hands can’t clap.  Our God is one who declares the ungodly righteous. 

If you worry about your faith, if it is strong enough, if it good enough, if you have enough, look to Jesus, the one in which justifying faith is placed.  Faith alone obtains the grace promised to Abraham, a promise that is yours by virtue of you Baptism into Christ.  This is how St. Paul can say, “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring.” 

No, it is not your faith that gives God permission to save you.  Instead, it is God the Holy Spirit who works faith in you in order to give you the salvation that Jesus earned with His death on the cross.  It is not the sincerity of faith that saves.  Instead, it is the object of faith that saves.  Faith may vary in strength, but even a weak faith justifies because of Christ’s work.  You can have a faith with a sincerity that transcends the universe, but if it is not in a specific man who died on a specific cross outside the City of Jerusalem, that faith is useless.  The faith that the Holy Spirit gives has a specific object … Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.

Tonight you are called to repent. Repent of the idol worship focused on yourself.  Repent of thinking that because you grew up Lutheran that you know, and believe, it all perfectly.  Repent of your faith in your faith, and not in Christ.  Repent of those times you thought or acted as though you could move mountains by the sheer force of your will.  Repent of those times you try to give your works a role in our salvation, and steal some of the credit from Jesus’ death on the cross.   If you can save yourself, then Jesus is not the Savior.  It is as plain and simple as that. Let us put away talk about faith, and let us focus our hearts and minds on the author and perfector of our faith – Jesus Christ.

But Jesus has come to call you out of your idolatry through the rebirth o Baptism, by the power of His Word. He gathers you to Himself, for His faithfulness is never wavering, never doubting.  So that you can stand firm before the judgment seat of God, righteous because Christ has died, and been raised, for you.

Matthew 17:1-9 "‘Tis Good Lord to Be Here"

Matthew 17:1-9 "‘Tis Good Lord to Be Here"

Transfiguration Sunday March 2, 2014

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Oh it is good to be here. In fact, none of us would probably be here today if we didn’t recognize that it is good to be here.  It is good to be here first and foremost because Jesus is here. Here is where Christ comes to meet us through His Word and through His Sacrament.  It is good to be here because the glory of the Lord revealed through Jesus is being revealed here. It is good to be here because we behold the beauty of the Lord fulfillment of the promises of the Law and with sweetness of His Gospel. 

We see this so clearly at the Transfiguration.  For a moment, in front of three of His disciples, Jesus is transfigured as He displays His divine glory.  As he sees Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, Peter speaks out to Him, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

People of God, do we act like it?  Do we act like Jesus is actually here with us, and that it is “good”? When you came into the church building today, did you say to yourself, “I am coming into the presence of God Himself”?  Did you make an effort to make ourselves presentable both spiritually and physically when coming into the presence of God?  Shouldn’t you have?  Should we not make the extra effort in the way we dress, the way we act before church starts, the way we participate in the service in order bear witness that it is good to be here in the presence of the living God and before His holy altar?

This isn’t a question of dressing the best, or being all put together, it is a question of laziness. Do you act like you are coming into the presence of the almighty God, or not? Being prepared to be in the presence of God does not rest in outward appearance, but in repentance and faith in Christ’s Word and Promise.  This is why we begin the Divine Service with a Confession and Absolution.  This divine and comforting truth that Jesus is present with us should cause us to confess with our thoughts, words, and deeds what exactly we believe about the God who is truly coming among His people to be with His people in love, mercy, and in the forgiveness of their sins.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his children’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, something that fits very nicely with the Transfiguration.  There’s a part in the book near the beginning when children go through a magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia.  They meet some talking animals there who are telling them a little bit about Narnia.  One of the children, named Susan, is speaking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who explain to them about Aslan.

“Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion."

"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly." "Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king I tell you."

At the Transfiguration we see that Jesus isn’t safe.  Here He stands upon the mount with Moses and Elijah in all His glory and majesty. His face shines like the sun.  We all know that looking directly into the sun will cause you to go blind.  It is too much for us to see.

The same glory and majesty radiating from Jesus is that which God reveals to His people as He calls Moses up to the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments.  Exodus 24:17 states, “Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire.” It is clear that approaching God is no small thing, nor necessarily a safe thing, nor is it possible for just anyone to approach. A group of seventy-plus men begins the journey up the mountain. By the end, only the one whom God has appointed and designated may enter the cloud.

Exodus 24, and its fulfillment in the Transfiguration give us a sense of the holy fear of God. Do you remember the beginning of the explanations of the 10 Commandments from Luther’s Small Catechism?  “We should fear and love God…”

God is not casual. He is not nice. He feeds the sparrows; he brings the rain; earthquakes and tsunamis, too, are in His hand.  God is not tolerant of sin, of self-righteousness, of rejection or rebellion.  At the sound of the voice of God coming from the bright cloud, the disciples were so overcome with fear that they fall flat on their face.

No, God is not safe, but He is good. And that is why it is good to be here.  It is good because God’s goodness is here.  In Jesus, with whom God the Father is well pleased, God is putting the good back into creation.  God knows that we cannot approach Him and live because His glory, His holiness, His goodness is too good for us poor, miserable sinners. If Old Testament Israel needed a mediator, the one named and appointed to approach the presence of God on behalf of the people, how much greater is our mediator, the Son of God.

And so God comes down to us. The very Son of God humbles Himself to become a man so that we might be in His presence, that we might see God face to face, and live! So that when we are face down in the mud and dirt of our sin, unable to stand before a holy and righteous God, Jesus comes to us through His Word and His Sacraments to touch you and say, “Rise, and have no fear.”  Your sins are forgiven by Christ crucified, the Good One.

Yes, it is GOOD that we are here, because here in His Word and Sacraments we see Jesus only.  Amen.

Romans 6:1-11 - Dying to Live

Romans 6:1-11

Dying to Live           

The Baptism of Our Lord A

January 12, 2014


This last week, I have been reminded of something this week about our faith which I sometimes overlook.  It seems like whenever this fact is forgotten, that something happens to remind me.  This last week, a member here at Zion Lutheran Church died.  Just off the high of Christmas and Epiphany, celebrating the birth of the Life o the world, death happens.  There is no getting around it.  Christianity is a life and death business. Because Life Itself has come to taste death, and the beginning of the end all starts in the waters of the Jordan River.

Every year we hear about the Baptism of Jesus right after the Christmas season.  It’s is what we need to hear, what we need to be reminded of, what we need to focus on again and again.  How many times have we taken this for granted.  How many times have we thought about how we already know this story? How many times do we try to forget the seriousness of this sinful world and that death comes to us all?  How many times do we take for granted the importance of Jesus’ baptism?

Jesus passes through the waters of the Jordan River, crossing into the Promised Land as Israel reduced to one, living as the perfect Son of God so that we might be sons and daughters of God.  Even John the Baptist recognized that Jesus had no sin to be forgiven of.  John needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around.  Yet, Jesus had to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness.  “All righteousness.”  Not half.  Not part. Not He’ll save you if you just ask, or if you make a decision, or say a certain prayer, or feel Him in your heart, or be a good enough Christian.  We have no righteousness of our own to earn or deserve.  Do you want to be righteous?  Do you want to be holy?  Do you want to be a “good Christian” and be faithful?  The shortest and best way is baptism and the work of baptism, which is suffering and death.

All too often we jump from Jesus’ baptism to our own. But we don’t get to our baptism from Jesus’ except first by going through the cross and the resurrection.  At His baptism, Jesus insisted on bearing our guilt.  His baptism was not His own.  By His baptism in the Jordan Jesus took upon Himself the obligation of the sins of the world.  His destination was sealed in the water of His baptism.  At the Jordan, the Lord of life stepped into death.  For since the wages of sin is death, the baptism of Jesus pointed relentlessly to His cross and death.  That is where we as the Church point one another and the world.

Everything God wants us to do, He has already done in His Son.  Everything God wants us to do, He has already done in His Son, and He continues to work in us in and through Jesus Christ.  There’s a link between the life Christians lead and their living Lord.  That link is baptism.

This is how St. Paul can say that we who are baptized into His death are also baptized into His life.  When God calls a person to faith, He bids them to come and die.  In order to live, you must die.  “A do-it-yourself approach to the Christian life is doomed from `the start.  Reform a sinner and you get a reformed sinner.  Discipline a sinner and you get a disciplined sinner.  Educate a sinner and you get an educated sinner.  In every case, you still have the same sinner you started out with.  No, the Old Adam will not be tamed or reformed or disciplined or educated. He can only be killed.  And this is just what God does; in Holy Baptism we are put to death and buried. But since it is the death and burial of Jesus, it makes all the difference in the world.  His death and burial brings with it resurrection and new life.  By Holy Baptism the Triune God crucifies our Old Adam, buries our sin, raises us as a new creation, and clothes us in Jesus Christ—thus giving us a whole new life to live.  This is the authentic formula for Christian living.” Harold Senkbeil, Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness, p 79.

When baptized into Christ, your reality changed.  Present experience beside the point, Paul urges you to count yourself to be what Baptism says you are in Christ: dead to sin.  And as Christ lives to God so you, like him, are living to God in Christ Jesus. Walking the walk and talking the talk comes only through baptism because through Baptism you are connected in death and in life to the only one who truly could talk the talk and walk the walk.

Baptism is a deadly thing.  Baptism kills.  At your baptism, God’s applies Christ’s death to you so that you receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice.  Baptism connects you with Christ’s work.  Jesus was intent on dying our death.  And die He did. Suffering and hanging on a cross.  It was a borrowed death.  It was our death.  But it brought life to us.  Thus our Baptism is our grave, a watery grave.  Holy Baptism, then, is both our tomb of death and our womb of life. Baptism kills you in order that through Jesus you might be raised back to life.  All that is his by His nature as the Son of God becomes yours by His grace. Faith receives what Christ accomplished on the cross, Baptism delivers it to you.

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